Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Royal Show

This is a bit out of sequence, but while it is fresh in my mind....

We were told at the beginning of this trip that the only way we could get back to America would be by winning the USA v. Australia Burger Smackdown at the Royal Adelaide Show. To be honest, I didn't think of it too much during the trip while my brain was swimming in Shiraz and my stomach filled with Wagyu and Lamb. However, the day arrived, and the nerves settled in.

Kristina and I were scheduled to do a film spot, an instructional video of sorts for local meat ranchers which was produced by MLA, our sponsors for the trip. The set was created on the rooftop garden of our hotel, just us, the crew, our mis en plac, a grill, and a bone chilling wind. It was a tedious task to stop, start, fake cue in, use Australian lingo, and the sort. Best part about it was learning another way of how chefs must interact with media and what it takes to get your own chef message out to the general public.

We got a short break and were scurried off to the Royal Show with a few ingredients brought from home, our chef coats, and our American flag. Kristina was brilliant enough to bring things like chipotle, guajillo, and ancho chile. All items not readily available down under. We walked into the pavilion to a wide array of food booths sampling items such as German sausage, "Bush" flavored ice creams, and many preserved jams and jellies made with local product.

On stage, a competition was taking place amongst 8 or 9 Australian chefs on Weber grills for the best Australian burger. We watched a little from the corner and the host began the trash talking almost immediately. "I can feel the nerves that just walked into the room"..."Those Americans knees must be knocking from fear"..."How can they possibly challenge the greatness of these Australian chefs and their burgers"....I guess it is all in jest and I had a smile on my face, but internally I was blowing up with competitive fire. There was really no way that losing would have been okay for me.

We step on stage for our introductions and the Australian crowd is gentler than I thought. Our little cheering section was loud and boisterous as we had coaxed them to be prior to jumping on stage. We were outfitted with an awesome Weber grill with half cast iron grates and half cast iron sizzle plate, a few utensils, crappy knives, a lot of lettuce and herbs, and a few pantry ingredients. We were then instructed that we could run into the show and pick up 3 ingredients from the booths. We bolted and went straight for a spicy brandy wine sausage, wattleseed ice cream (this is a native seed that gives the essence of chocolate, coffee, and hazelnut - there must be a God, right?), and our home ingredient of chipotle.

Upon return we are given a mystery box and 20 minutes to get our burgers to plate! The energy in the room picks up, the judges are sequestered, the anxiety builds, and the confusion sets in. I don't know the rules, I don't know where pots are, our grill is not hot, and I have not located the sugar, salt, or pepper. The countdown begins.

3, 2, 1....we open the mystery box. Kristina frantically pulls out ingredient after ingredient. We are expecting about 3 or 4 items in the box, but there about 20. Things like lamb, preserved lemon, avocado, pickled jalapeno, bottled bbq sauce, sandwich baggies, canned beets. I was like, what??? Kristina and I had a plan. We were going to represent our Los Angeles flavors and show a little ambition by serving our burger with a milkshake.

We pull lamb, piri piri sauce, avocado, Greek yogurt, red wine vinegar, and canned pineapples. We quickly review our dish, delegate duties and we are off and running. I decide to make a chipotle glaze and pickle our onions, but I don't have sugar. I waste a few minutes scrambling for sugar and the host drops off crystallized honey. I spend another 5 minutes trying to get this out of the bottle, impossible, so I go to the butcher board and cut the bottle in half and start dumping honey into my pots. This was a brief moment of relief until I notice that our grill is not fully lit. Only the outside flames were on, not the interior. There was no turning back so I prayed to the Culinary Gods to watch over us.

Kristina forged through and made a beautifully rich avocado crema with fresh lemon juice and the Greek yogurt. Meanwhile, we bowled up our Wattleseed ice cream and placed it next to the grill to melt. I wondered aloud before the contest how we could make the shake with no blending apparatus, but Rick Gresh, the Executive Chef of Primehouse in Chicago who is traveling in our group suggested to let it melt and whip like crazy. So we did just that. Nice assist Rick!

Meanwhile, I have reductions and pickling liquids working so I get the burgers seasoned with salt, pepper, shallot, thyme, and piri piri sauce. I form those bad boys and throw them on the grill. I don't hear a sizzle and my heart sinks. The US and Kristina are depending on me to get this lamb cooked and our freaking grill is not hot! I had to move on and deal with it. We are down to less than 5 minutes.

The 20 minutes fly by and we go to plate with less than a minute to go. Toasted bun, crema

We watch the judge's scrupulously eat and taste each burger. "What are they thinking", I ask myself. I can't handle the anxiety so I ask Nicole to run and get me a beer. So there we are, watching judges eat our burgers and Kristina and I are on stage chugging beer.

"And the winner is, with a score of 80.5"......."TEAM USA!!!!"

Yes, we did it. We shake hands, pose for pictures draped in the US Flag and enjoy another beer before being rushed off to another stage to demo our lamb burgers on the national ABC radio show.

Busy day indeed.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fish Market, Victor Churchill's, Pony, Becasse

Fish Market, Butcher, and More

Adjusting to the new time has been a challenge, but our schedule is so busy you don’t have time to think of it. We were set to meet at 6:15am for our day at the Sydney Fish Market. Lattes and the smells accompanied by obscene amounts of fish is probably not the most complimentary of each other, but my excitement to see what Australia has swimming in their oceans trumped any other feelings I had. To think what a continent, a country, floating as an island would have as seafood possibilities.

We enter the back corridor of the fish mart standing atop a stadium seating of sort overlooking a wild chorus of Asian men yelling and barking numbers, pressing buttons as they take part in the Dutch auction. Their goal to buy all the freshest fish and shellfish that littered the hangar’s floor. The Dutch auction took a bit to understand, but in a sentence or two, a market price is set and the prices drop rather than rise and each auctioneer attempts to buy their fish at a low price, but not so low where they will lose out to their counterpart. And if you pay to high for the fish, you are definitely going to hear it as this group is not afraid to start a ruckus when they don’t approve.

Sydney’s fish market is home to the second most diverse selection of seafood. We saw purple crabs, bugs, flat head mullet, barramundi, mirror dory, manta ray wings, conch, cuttlefish, carp, bonito, ana cod, mud crabs, crayfish, kingfish, and many others. To top off the morning we would have a seafood breakfast. I thought of nothing better, but to have a dozen freshly shucked oysters creamy, briny and tasting of the ocean with a simple garnish of shaved Thai bird chili and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Off to Victor Churchill’s which has to be the world’s most premium high end butcher shop. Located in the suburbs this butcher shop was no Marconda’s. It is more like a jewelry store and Tiffany’s of sorts, but in the display cases are aged beef, marble score 9 Wagyu beef, kurobuta pork prosciutto, duck confit, and pate de campagne. Marble floors, vintage hand cranked meat slicers and an illuminated Himalayan salt wall provide the decor, but the real show lies behind the plexiglass refrigerated rooms. Two butchers working behind wood cutting board cylinders while wearing impeccably clean white butcher coats surrounded a aging hind quarters of beef, pork, and lamb circling the room on a heavy track similar in fashion how your dry cleaner searches a network of hangers to find your pressed clothing.

I can not speak highly enough of the level craftsmanship, care, and detail taken at Victor Churchill’s. Every cut of meat sliced accurately, every pate emulsified and not oxidized in any way, every stock viscous in a harmonious balance of meat, fat, liquid, and gelatin, every truffle displayed in glory. Churchill’s opened my eyes to the importance of understanding my craft and the importance of what it means to be fundamentally sound as a chef. Not one display was neglected and every customer was attended to at a level of service that we can all take a lesson from. Victor Churchill’s has a high end niche market, but if your goal is do something at the absolute highest level, then Victor Churchill’s symbolizes what that success might look like for a butcher.

In the next four hours we are set to have two formal meals. An industry networking luncheon being held at the Pony at the Rocks, the oldest settlement of Australia, an Old Town of sorts. Here we would be catered to by celebrity chef Damien, a young chef, tall and lanky, confident and a deft hand when it comes to working with off cuts of meat. We sat at a 40 foot long communal wood table on their outdoor terrace, surrounded by Australian colleagues, chefs, restauranteurs, recruiters, sommeliers, and more industry folk. The restaurant was rustic in nature and anchored by a large open kitchen and an imported Argentinean style grill. We ate sirloin carpaccio in soy and chili sauce, beefy in flavor and balanced by aged soy and the slightest hint of burn from shaved thai bird chili; asparagus with ricotta salata and salsa verde, first of season asparagus, bright and green, accented with the salted sheep’s milk ricotta and rounded out with a blend of fresh herbs and the zest of lemon; smoked eggplant puree; twice cooked short ribs braised lovingly and then finished on the wood fire grill getting the best of both worlds - the succulence of fat dripping down the mahogany drapes of beef and all topped off with a gluttons true favorite, bone marrow and parsley salad, and finally, wood fired flank steak grilled over Iron Bark, both smokey and sweet. This food was approachable, executed well, but what I liked best was the vision it imprinted on me. Finally, the image I have always had in my head for the restaurant “look” I would want for myself materialized in front of me. Brick columns, chopped wood layered in triangular cubbies, and a black and white cowhide back drop centralizing the guest’s focus on the kitchen crew’s reality of serving 40 people at once.

Following lunch Nicole and I took a long stroll across the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It was a great way to walk off our big lunch as well as get another stunning view of that Opera House, yet this time from over the water. It is like from every angle, that structure takes on a whole new look and a whole new amazement that someone was able to think about the idea and someone was able to make it happen, proving that anything is possible.

It is only day 2, but dinner at Becasse would prove to be mind numbing. The attention to detail, the level of execution, and the thoughtfulness behind why ingredients were used rose this dinner into the upper echelon of dining. The dining room was simple, spacious and a bit elegant allowing the true star to shine, the food.

The accuracy of the first course got the inspiring juices bubbling. A pillowy cauliflower puree topped with tender scallops kissed with a hint of smoke, miso confit of blue eye, supple cuttlefish, and garnished with toasted buckwheat for crunch and a splash of olive oil. This indeed would be a preview of the greatness that would follow.

I would like to call our next course my favorite, but it would be impossible because of the pre dessert course we would  be having. However, a salad of heirloom vegetables with Riverina lamb would be a close second. Seems like Becasse understands the nuances of making puree balancing the flavor of vegetable with the blending medium and incorporating enough air to consistently produce these pillowy textures. This time it was a puree of beets and carrots juxtaposed by their synonymous roots. The vegetables were not the celebrity of the dish, but could’ve been. The real star, the lamb fillet, cooked sous vide and finished on the grill with a rosy pink throughout the flesh and tenderly soft capped with a sugar snap mousse, olive tapenade and a crispy cigarette of braised, breaded and fried lamb’s neck.

Wagyu had to be on the menu and chef Justin North is an expert in this area. He is known around town as the fine dining chef that popularized the Wagyu burger. He sat at the table with us and explained the muscular structure of the animal and gave specific detail into how he makes his burger utilizing the whole carcass spread across his three restaurant and using every last bit of the animal. He even passed on a few chef secrets as to why he believes his burger is great that I am going to reserve for myself having traveled 15 hours to get trade secrets just like that!

Wagyu cookery takes a deft hand. The chef has to balance the meats own inherent richness with the other items on the plate. Chef Justin hit a home-run here. He takes a forgotten cut on fine dining menus in the States, the sirloin or rump, and applies refined technique to its preparation. Being 100% Wagyu, this cut is filled with internal marbling and, just like it’s Angus cousin, it is naturally filled with amazing beef flavor. He cooks it sous vide to ensure tenderness and finishes it in the skillet with brown butter, garlic, and herbs. Chef was not done. He wanted to show us how great the “secondary” cuts or “Masterpieces” can be. How about a brisket, cooked sous vide for 36 hours hours. Tender, juicy, and dripping beef, a balance of meet and fat that gives you enough to chew without much effort. Eating beef with a spoon at this moment I could appreciate. The crispy bacon and smoked potato puree were additional gifts offered by the Chef.

Onto the famed dessert, or pre-dessert I should say. A milky cardamom laced panna cotta topped with a beet root mousse, beet root ganache and a blood orange granita. What a play on texture from smooth and supple to crunchy and cool and the way the beet and blood orange played off of each other from earthy to sweet to sour and savory. It was a bit of a symphony for a me and heavenly to say the least. Odd for me to enjoy something so delicate and almost feminine, but it was truly eye opening.

Lastly, having saved just enough room we were given the signature 70% Bolivian chocolate and caramel “cadeau”. A simple presentation of a sphere encased in shimmering chocolate paired with an equally simple quenelle of buttermilk sorbet. Upon first look, it appeared that we would have to crack through the chocolate shell, but it was tempered so well that the chocolate was a mere cloak for the rich caramel ball that lied within it. The dish was extremely rich, but if eaten with the perfectly paired milk sorbet the dessert could be enjoyed without a sip of coffee or water...just my style because I didn’t have to stop eating.



“Are you ready for the long flight” is all I heard amongst the “have an amazing time” and “takes lots of pictures” leading up to our big trip to Australia for winning the Australian Lamb Burger Recipe Contest. Yes, fifteen hours is quite some time to be cooped up in a fuselage, encased with the some of the worlds strongest metals, but this was different. This TransPacific flight was done in the comfort of a Qantas Airbus A380, a mammoth with wings, a den of comfort and entertainment all squared away in an area of 10 cubic feet of economy class. If Nicole and I were this comfortable, I could only imagine how well off our travel mates in Premium Economy were: Kristina Vanni, my fellow recipe winner, Chandra Ram, editor of Plate Magazine, Stephen Edwards, Chef from Meat & Livestock Australia, and Rick Gresh, Executive Chef of David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago.

Fifteen hours passed like five, so we were all ready off to a great start. It was adjusting to the time difference that presented itself as a challenge. We left at 10:30pm Saturday night and arrived in Sydney at 6:30am on Monday, so you can only imagine how screwed up one, such as me, that keeps a tight schedule would be a little out there. Nonetheless, we were here for business and we would have a full agenda presented in front of us.

We checked in at the Amora Hotel located centrally in downtown Sydney just a short walk from the Rocks, the pioneering village just west of the Harbor Bridge and, of course, the breath taking architecture of the Sydney Opera House.

At about 3pm we met up with more MLA staff, Elissa and Mel, who would serve as our “tour guides, concierge, and babysitters”. Australians are a pleasant lot, highly sociable, friendly, and generally just a good people to be around.

We took a short walk through the city trying to remember to look the opposite direction when crossing the street. That whole thing of cars driving on the wrong side can lead a naive American into trouble if you are not careful. “Look both ways before crossing the street” takes a whole new meaning down under.

We wander off to an old bank that has recently went through a 36 million dollar reservation, home of the Rockwood Bar and Grill and the Spice Temple, two restaurants in partnership with celebrity chef Neil Perry, I’m guessing the Thomas Keller of Australia.

As we enter we are greeted by a kind waitstaff and scurried downstairs behind a LCD screen door blasting rays of color up and down the screen giving the entrance a psychedelic vibe. As we traverse the spiral staircase and drop into the Chinese den, dark, sexy loungy room, we are introduced to Executive Chef Andy Evans. He is another kind Australian, red hair, freckled and eyes wide and attentive like his focus from his work never leaves his mind.

The kitchen is quiet, but ironically full and busy with about 8 cooks working on an island station prepping things like salt prawns, various vegetables, and sous vide brisket. They have a live clam and lobster tank in the kitchen and no vent hood. That’s right, no vent hood, as the kitchen is entirely comprised of Electrolux electronic and magnetic induction cooking equipment. The chef states that the equipment is so accurate that they can control and maintain the temperature of their cooking equipment to the tenth degree. Impressive to say the least and not to mention not hot!

We visit the basement meat lockers to view the inventory, the money maker of the restaurant upstairs the Rockwood Bar and Grill. These two establishments share the purchase of beef by purchasing whole Wagyu cattle carcass...Rockwood using the primal cuts and Spice Temple using the secondary cuts. You will notice that this is consistent amongst Australian chefs, to buy the whole carcass, break it down and design their menus from nose to tail utilizing every bit of the animal.....Inspiring! Rows and rows of dry aging beef on racks, hind quarters hanging by hooks piercing through tendon and extraneous fat. There is a musty, cheesy smell throughout this meat locker. The beef is shrinking, its drying, its aging, but its developing dynamic flavor and a tenderness that can not be achieved otherwise.

We go on and on touring this restaurant "complex" of sorts seeing the layers of detail and thoughtful planning that was considered to design such a monstrosity of an investment. We pass by the banquet room and then the production kitchen that is buzzing with baby face commis scurrying away prepping tray after tray of lasagna bolognese, crab cakes, sous vide brussels sprouts, fresh pizza dough, amongst other things.

We finish the tour in their bar and our told of the owner's personal four million dollar wine collection and then are engulfed by thousands of riedel crystal wine glasses that make up the chandelier. You talk about excessive and unique, imagine glass after glass matchsticked upon each other stretching over the bar about 30 feet long and 10 feet high, polarizing light on our amazed faces.

We head back to our room briefly to freshen up and get ready for our pre-dinner drinks at the Opera House. It is a beautiful scene, we've seen it all before on television on New Years or during the Olympics, but seeing it in person gave me another feel. I had an electrifying sensation pulsating my veins that provided a sense of place for me...that travel opens eyes and hearts, that I've earned my way to Australia somehow, someway and that the inspiration that I am always seeking would finally be discovered in the next few weeks.

Drinks on a harbor framed by the stacked conch like shells that make up the Opera House cover, blue sea water and a steel framed arc that symbolizes the vitality of Sydney. We sat sharing Cooper’s beer awaiting our first meal in Australia.

Spice Temple is Neil Perry’s representation of modern Chinese food. We sat in our private dining room with the regular group along with 8 others from MLA who sponsored this trip. Being the special guests, the foodies, and the chefs we were guaranteed a barrage of courses and plenty of wine. To give you an idea, think pickled cabbage and cucumber, stir fry minced pork and eggplant, cumin lamb with fennel in freshly steamed buns, brisket with fermented black bean and house made oyster sauce, blue eye fish with ginger broth, and the grand finale, poached flat head mullet with toasted chili. Sounds fairly tame, but this dish was wild and feral with a toasted burn from three chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. To the eye, the bowl appeared to be filled with shimmering chiles slicked with oil, but as the server fished the chiles from the bowl, a delicate fish and onions lay serenely in a pool of infused soy and an oddly mild broth. The burn was more toasty than fiery...I guess looks can be deceiving.

This was not Chinese food that I have ever had, but that is not what was unique to me. It was the sauces and the balance of flavor that was most memorable. There was not once, cloying sweet sauce, or an overly salty soy bit of meat, or a gloopy sauce thickened with cornstarch. This was like taking years of training in haute cuisine, using refined technique and understanding of ingredients and applying it to the greatness and soulfulness that comes from Chinese peasant recipes.

This was a good start.